With Virginia Surplus, Everybody Wins
By Donald P. Baker and R.H. Melton
RICHMOND, Feb. 27 – The Virginia General Assembly today completed work that will transform a $1-billion economic windfall into lower taxes and college tuition, construction of schools and highways, and long-delayed help for police departments and mental patients.
The record surplus, fueled by the continued rapid expansion of the Washington suburbs, helped smooth over the fractious relationship that marked last year's assembly session, the first in the administration of Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R).
Lawmakers in Virginia, where the 1999 legislative session ends before that of any other state, found that the robust economy reduced demands to choose between traditional political agendas of cutting taxes and expanding government programs.
The presence of the surplus spurred legislators to propose a record 3,149 bills and resolutions.
"It's easy to be a governor, it's easy to be a legislator, when you've got a $1‚billion surplus," said Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), a legislator for 24 years.
In an interview tonight, Gilmore said: "Governing in a time like this, it's still possible – even in a surplus – to spend the money the wrong way. You could still do this badly. ... We did the prudent balance" of tax relief and appropriate spending.
As the 46-day session ended, the state Senate and House of Delegates reached final agreement today on a $42‚billion supplementary budget. It includes $75‚million to offset a 20 percent reduction in college tuition beginning in the fall; $104‚million in bonds for highway projects in Northern Virginia; $166‚million in aid to local police departments; $40‚million to provide a 6 percent raise in the state's share of teachers' salaries, and a tax cut for low-ranking military personnel.
The sales tax reduction on groceries that was approved in this session goes into effect Jan. 1, when the state's share of the total tax will be reduced from 4.5 percent to 4 percent. Further periodic reductions will continue until the rate reaches 2.5 percent in 2003.
Democrats had wanted the cut to be deeper and faster, but Gilmore opposed it, threatening to veto any tax cut or spending proposal that might jeopardize the schedule by which the personal property tax on motor vehicles will be eliminated. Gilmore's 1997 election victory was widely attributed to his "no car tax" slogan.
The budget also returns $276‚million in lottery profits to public schools. Half of the money will be used exclusively for construction, renovation and technology improvements, as favored by Democrats, and half for general educational purposes, as proposed by Republicans.
The assembly, under the threat of federal intervention on behalf of the state's mental patients, approved $30‚million more in mental health spending than Gilmore recommended and then added an extra $6‚million as a tribute to retiring Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Fairfax), who championed social service projects during his 28 years in the General Assembly.
Gilmore claimed victory on "all the proposals I put forward." The governor had mapped out a relatively modest agenda of spending programs this winter while adhering to a tax-cutting message that he says is reshaping Virginia's political discourse.
"We certainly have changed the nature of the discussion in this state," Gilmore said. "We've opened the door to more opportunities to give more people back their money."
Still, his agenda did not please all in his party. Gilmore's predecessor, Republican George Allen, said in a call to a local radio show last week that he would have returned half of the budget surplus to taxpayers. Allen characterized the tax relief offered by Gilmore as "being miserly with the taxpayers. ... It's pro-government."
Gilmore's reputation as a practical politician suffered a blow during a protracted debate about whether the state should reimburse legal fees incurred by Michele Finn, whose desire to withdraw food and water from her severely injured husband, Hugh, was postponed by Gilmore's intervention.
Despite intensive lobbying by the governor and his staff, a majority of Republicans deserted Gilmore and joined Democrats in approving a payment of $48,000 for the widow, plus $10,000 for one of Hugh Finn's brothers.
Gilmore, who said he intervened at the request of Hugh Finn's parents and siblings, now must decide to use his line-item veto power to remove the money from the budget or, as some of his aides have urged, quietly allow the claim to be paid.
The assembly this year also responded to public concerns on issues that included the regulation of out-of-state trash and the enactment of safeguards for patients enrolled in managed care health plans.
With Virginia now second only to Pennsylvania as the recipient of other people's garbage, the lawmakers banned the transportation of garbage by barges, which environmentalists warned posed a threat to the state's waterways, capped the capacity of landfills at last year's levels and tightened inspections.
Democrats proposed a 14-point "patients' bill of rights" in response to complaints about health insurance organizations, but Republicans killed what was to have been its centerpiece, a bill allowing patients to sue their health insurance plans if they believed they had been denied needed service.
Also this year, Virginia became the latest state to authorize deregulation of electric utilities, similar to the way telephone service has been opened up to competition. The proposal caps electricity rates until 2007, after which, at least in theory, electric rates could fall because of competition.
Conservative social and religious issues fared poorly. Legislators defeated attempts to further restrict abortion rights by imposing a 24-hour waiting period and requiring abortion clinics to meet the architectural and safety standards of hospitals. Anti-abortion activists also withdrew a request for a special license plate after lawmakers amended their original choice, "Choose Life," to "Choose Adoption" and finally to "Friends of Adoption."
The assembly did give local schools the option of adding abstinence training to family life, or sex education, courses.
Legislators gave bipartisan support to a Democratic proposal that will require schools to teach "character education," while giving wide latitude about what values – such as honesty, integrity and responsibility – shall be included in the courses.
Several issues to which African American legislators objected were defeated or watered down. Among them was a bill that would have allowed police to stop and ticket motorists who are driving without a fastened seat belt. Opponents said the bill would result in the arrest of an inordinate number of blacks and other minorities.
A request that a special license plate be issued to the Sons of Confederate Veterans was amended to bar the Confederate flag. Only the organization's name will appear on the plate.
Approved over the opposition of the Legislative Black Caucus was a pilot program that will require voters to produce identification at polling places. The measure is aimed at reducing the number of unregistered or fraudulent voters, but opponents said it will scare off older minority voters, who retain vivid memories of poll taxes and other obstacles to voting.
All 140 seats in the General Assembly will be up for election in November. Republicans are hoping to build on the recent gains that have put them in control of the governor's mansion and Senate and left them with a power-sharing arrangement in the House of Delegates.
Although many legislators said power-sharing worked much more smoothly this year than last, there were several hard-fought partisan battles and unresolved tensions.
"I wish we could have done more and got more of what we as a Democratic Party wanted to do, but I think we can leave here with a very good record this session," said House Speaker Thomas W. Moss Jr. (D-Norfolk).
"Nobody got everything they wanted," said Scott Keeter, a political scientist at George Mason University, "nor were they so thoroughly defeated they can say it's the obstructionists on the other side who are keeping you from what you want."
Staff writer Craig Timberg contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company